Blatnick Is Wrestling for His Life : He Has Two Wins That Offset Any Losses on the Mat

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Blatnick has beaten cancer twice, but as far as he is concerned, that is last year’s news.

He would rather this interview have been about how he beat Morris Johnson of San Francisco, another super-heavyweight, Greco-Roman wrestler.

But Johnson won Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Olympic Festival, eliminating Blatnick and leaving his future as a world-class wrestler in doubt.


“A lot of people say, ‘See you in ‘88,’ but they don’t realize what you have to do to make the U.S. team,” said Blatnick, who turns 30 a week from today. “You can’t worry about the Olympic team when you’re No. 3 in the Olympic Festival.

“The odds against me to make the Olympic team and win a gold medal again are astronomical. You can’t roll the dice that many times.”

But before you consider him pinned, remember he might have said the same thing in 1982, two years before the Los Angeles Games, when he discovered for the first time he had Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes and a somewhat more formidable opponent than even Morris Johnson.

Blatnick subdued the cancer through radiation treatments and an operation to remove his spleen, won the Olympic gold medal, cried on the victory stand and announced to the world that he was one happy dude.

Then, less than a year later, Blatnick was at home in Albany, N.Y., when he felt a lump below his belt line.

“Something feels funny,” he told a friend.

“Don’t talk like that,” the friend said.

“I’ve got to check it out,” Blatnick said.

A biopsy in August 1985 revealed the cancer had returned.

This time, the doctors recommended chemotherapy, which has potentially more severe side effects than radiation treatments.


“I didn’t know what it would do,” he said. “Would I go bald and have to wear a hat all the time? Would I feel sick all the time? I can’t sit here and tell you that I wasn’t scared.”

Some men would have cursed fate. Blatnick blamed himself.

He said he became soft after winning the gold medal.

A man who never had earned more than $15,000 a year suddenly was making $4,500 a night on the banquet circuit to deliver motivational speeches about his fight with cancer.

“I got more scars on my back from people slapping me than from wrestling,” he said.

But the more time he spent in airports while traveling from one engagement to another, the less time he had for himself, his family and friends. Relationships suffered. He broke up with his girlfriend. He also quit training seriously, wrecked his knee in a skiing accident and soon found himself out of shape and less able to deal with the stress that accompanied his new responsibilities.

If only he had one more chance, he vowed, his life would change.

But first he had to wrestle with six months of chemotherapy.

“I didn’t lose my hair; I didn’t get sick,” he said. “But I put on weight. When there was no nausea, I continued to eat. But I couldn’t exercise.”

In March of 1986, the doctors told Blatnick the cancer again had gone into remission. Again, he was one happy dude.

The first thing he did was put away his watch.

“A watch is one of the most stressful things there is,” he said. “You feel you’ve always got to be somewhere at a certain time. I don’t want to live like that any more.”

The second thing he did was return to the gym.

It hurt so good.

“I was asked to do an exhibition with another wrestler at halftime of a Denver Nuggets’ game,” he said. “After six minutes, I was exhausted. Not tired. Exhausted. When I finished, I couldn’t even pick up a basketball and shoot a free throw.

“But I was doing what I had to do. I know my body is cleanest when I’m training. You rid yourself of antitoxins, you eat well, you pay attention to diet and nutrition.”

More than a year after he resumed training, Blatnick has regained his form, back down to his wrestling weight of 255 pounds, but not his endurance.

He entered this tournament ranked third in the nation among super-heavyweights and was optimistic that he could win, which would have earned him a berth on the U.S. team in the Pan American Games Aug. 8-23 at Indianapolis and in the World Championships later this year in France.

But in his best-of-three matches against the fourth-ranked Johnson, Blatnick, in only his eighth contest since 1984, lost, 4-7, 0-3. Trailing, 0-1, with 30 seconds remaining in the second match, he became defensive, an obvious sign he was physically drained.

He said afterward he will attend a training camp next week in Pensacola, Fla., before deciding whether to continue working toward the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul, South Korea.

“I’ve got some soul-searching to do right now,” he said. “Go somewhere, pop open a few and think about it.

“I want to earn my keep. I’m not a part of it. I want to be part of it. I have to earn the right to win again.”

The day before, the U.S. Olympic coach, Pavel Katsen, introduced Blatnick to a group of reporters as the first Greco-Roman gold medalist the U.S. has ever had. Blatnick corrected Katsen, pointing out that Steve Fraser won a gold medal the day before he did in Los Angeles.

“I can’t dissociate myself from the cancer; I never will,” he said later. “But I feel cheated because the reason I received so much publicity and Steve Fraser didn’t is because I had cancer. It’s very cut and dried. That’s the way it is.

“I’d rather be recognized because of my athletic ability. I just hope the other wrestlers don’t have to get cancer to have someone pat them on the back and say, ‘Good job.’ ”

But sing no sad songs for Blatnick.

“There are a lot of ifs, but I don’t live with a cloud over my head,” he said. “I feel healthy. I expect to live a long and healthy life.

“I look forward to tomorrow like anyone else does. Sometimes, I do wonder what it holds in store for me. I hope to be able to have a family. I don’t know if I will.

“But the best thing for me is talking to someone who says, ‘I’m 19 years past Hodgkin’s.’ When that happens, I don’t have to look for inspiration. I’ve got it right in front of me.”